8 April 2021
Simon Pearson comments on the latest conflict over images of the Prophet Mohammed.
Looking back, what was fixed in the mind, with the passage of time, becomes blurred and events get misremembered, jumbled up with other thoughts, joined in a patchwork of the real and fictional. That’s my disclaimer if the start of this gets a bit muddled.
It may seem odd to start an article on the latest secular/woke/blasphemy/religious kerfuffle with my personal experience, but it’s important. Don’t they always say write what you know?
I was 14 years old, turning 15, when I started work in a local bookshop. This was 1988 – 1988 BA (before Amazon) – and book buying had to be done by walking to the shop,browsing real books, maybe having a conversation with the bookseller, and then the happy shopper went out with a paper bag with a paperback book inside. Not a one-click or add tobasket in sight.
You must remember the conversation if you needed a book but couldn’t remember the author or title. It would start with the following:
‘I’m looking for a book.’
‘Yes,’ I would say (thinking this is a bookshop – what else would you be looking for).
‘It was on Wogan, it was blue, about this big’ (customer mimes size of book).
Then, as if by magic, a 15-year-old non-Wogan watcher would pluck said blue book from the shelf of many blue books (thank God for ‘books in the media’ – a couple of A4 stapled bits of paper describing every book on TV and radio for that week, which made said bookseller look like Uri Geller).
I digress. The point of this memory – yes, there is a point – is that 1988 wasn’t just the year of Tiffany, Thatcher, and The Flying Doctors, but also the year The Satanic Verses came out in hardback. This was Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel and had been released to worldwide critical acclaim – and notoriety. For notoriety read: had caused deep offence to the Islamic community both in the UK and abroad, with copies of the book burnt in the streets and regular protests.
Why? Well my 15-year-old self had no idea. Ask me something about the latest Shaun Hutson or James Herbert, even a Terry Pratchett, and I was away, but Salman Rushdie? Never heard of him.
All I knew was that The Satanic Verses had pissed off the Asian community: we now had a security guard on the door and the book was hidden from view. Whilst the book wasn’t on general display, it didn’t stop the abuse, being spat at, and the odd stack of books being knocked over (mostly by young Pakistani blokes not much older than myself), which slowly became all in a day’s work, for what turned out to be a short few weeks of rage, for this bookseller at least, though for rather longer for Rushdie, who was served a fatwa by the Iranian mullahs.
But what was all the fuss about? Books were things to get excited about, like when the latest Jeffery Archer came out (I’m joking), or Michael Palin went around the world in 80 days, not things to be angry about. So off into the cupboard I went to pick out one of the hardback copies. It had a nice dark blue cover and a couple of figures on the front, who were wrestling, maybe fighting.
I think I read three pages. There was a plane. It blew up. Then someone had a dream while falling. Or something like that. Or maybe I’ve completely misremembered. It was certainly no Stephen King, so back in the cupboard it went before the next person came to the counter and whispered, ‘Have you got that book, the satanic one?’. Another ping of the cash register, and the book was handed over, carefully hidden from view in a paper bag.
Years later I discovered that the reason the book had offended the Muslim community was because of what were perceived as blasphemous references in the novel. The dream-like narrative, visions if you like, are linked together by many thematic details as well as by the common motifs of divine revelation, religious faith and fanaticism, and doubt. One of these sequences contains most of the elements that have been criticised as offensive to Muslims. It is a transformed re-narration of the life of Mohammed (called ‘Mahound’ or ‘the Messenger’ in the novel) in Mecca (‘Jahiliyyah’).’
But thinking back to 1988, had those enraged Muslim youth of my provincial town read the book? Probably not, but that didn’t matter, even if it was their fathers, brothers, or the imam at the local mosque who had first-hand or second-hand knowledge of the book, that was enough. There was anger and hurt, it was real and had been set free, running through the community like wildfire.
Now I am not religious, but I respect those who have faith. After all, it’s far easier to be non-religious in a country like Britain today than it is to have even a smidgen of faith. The last census, held in 2011, had almost 60% of the population identifying with Christianity. (I’m not even sure I know what that means. Celebrate Christmas maybe?). This figure is likely to fall dramatically when the results for 2021 are in, but it is still, in a sense, the dominant religion.
But the Muslim minority are constantly tarnished with the slur of not being British enough and of caring more about their faith than the country they happen to live in. Islam is a minority faith in a sort of Christian Britain. And a minority faith in a context shaped by the War on Terror and rampant Islamophobia.
The rage and subsequent protest stem from a religious education class in a school near Bradford in which a teacher behaved in a way considered blasphemous by many Muslims (though the details of what actually happened are sketchy) by showing a class images of the Prophet Mohammed.
Only recently in France a high school teacher was murdered after showing his class cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, and it was only five years ago when the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo chose to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The publication of the images resulted in two brothers shooting up the Paris office of the newspaper and 17 people being killed.
While there may be Islamists using the legitimate protest and anger of the parents to push a fundamentalist agenda, we must recognise that some of the students and parents at Batley Grammar School have been unnecessarily offended. The teacher didn’t need to show the cartoons to demonstrate what could be perceived as blasphemous to Muslims. While the national curriculum provides the framework, it would be up to the individual teacher how a particular area is covered, how the lesson plan is formulated. I don’t doubt for a second that there is a requirement to teach blasphemy but this can be done without being blasphemous.
I don’t for a second condone murder, acts of violence, or someone being sacked over an act of blasphemy, even if offence has been caused. But I would expect an RE teacher to know they are entering choppy waters by showing images of the Prophet Mohammed.
It’s not about ‘insulting unicorns’ as atheist Richie Gervais tweeted in the aftermath of the protest at Batley, and it doesn’t matter if it is 2021 or 1988. It’s about showing respect to people of religious belief, especially where they are an embattled minority subject to widespread Islamophobic abuse.
Some will argue Britain is a ‘free country’, and people should be able to say what we want, teach their children what they like, and be damned of the consequences. I subscribe to this in part, but we must be mindful of our actions, our words, and the damage and hurt they may cause to others. That doesn’t mean we accept all religious dogmas: there are tenets of the main Abrahamic religions – all three of them – that have no place in a modern progressive society. But showing images of the Prophet Mohammed is not the same as challenging, say, patriarchy, misogyny, and homophobia dressed up as religion.
If we are knowingly going to offend, and we do this just for the sake of it, we are at the level of the comedy routines of Bernard Manning or Jim Davidson. This is not just a matter of freedom of speech, saying/showing/teaching what you like, but having regard for consequences. It doesn’t mean you can’t, but it is important to consider what may happen if you do. As David Hare writes in the latest New Statesman: ‘As someone who has spent the last 50 years writing, I too care about giving offence. It’s vital. Whether doing it intentionally or unintentionally, I could have hardly worked without it. Nor would I ever forgo the chance to write about any culture or race or class I choose, trusting that I will be held account by the far better-informed people I write about.’
We must be held accountable by those that are better informed than ourselves, and accept there are subjects about which we may have little understanding, and through our ignorance cause offence. If we step into the arena, then we must be prepared to be held accountable for our actions.
But to be held accountable is not to be murdered or dismissed from a job. It is to have a rational conversation (even if we think the complaint irrational), to learn, to look at things from another viewpoint. Most importantly, we must be given the opportunity to apologise (even if no offence was intended) and then the apology needs to be accepted.
Simon Pearson is an active member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.